Word Messages

One summer afternoon in Miller Place, I was drawing a picture of our house. Someone, I think it was my Great Aunt Pauline, looked over my shoulder and said, “Yes, she gets that artistic talent from her mother.” Now my mother could paint delicate colorful flowers on furniture and trays, and sew earrings from bric-a-brac (if you know what this is, you’re in my era-beginning of the baby boom @1947). My sisters and I had seen Mom’s pencil sketches of models and glamorous women. But I knew, as little kids do, that Aunt Pauline didn’t dispense these compliments lightly. When this one dropped by my ears, I was about seven, or some age before the age of reason. That one sentence planted a seed in me: I had this talent and my picture proved it!

The Sore Tooth

Words are powerful. Some words carry a positive message. Some – negative. Sometimes negative messages are like that one sore tooth in a mouthful of healthy ones. My tongue goes right to it. Is that a hole? Is it getting bigger? There it goes again, sliding right over the rest of my teeth and giving way too much attention to that one sore tooth. Even today I know those negative messages are not helpful, not even true, and yet, I fall prey to some, or they spill out of the garbage message container in my brain and out my mouth.

Ex: I’m just a beginner. Beginner – OK.  Just? A tad limiting, don’t you think?

Ex.: I only published one book. One – super.  Only? Come on, one is terrific.

Ex.: Any kind of  “yeah, but…” is a negative conversation stopper.

As I got older I was still looking outside of me to find out who I was. I think that’s pretty natural in humans; we want to be OK in our group. Accepted. Looked at with acceptance when we are in any group. I was blessed, fortunate. I heard, ”WE need master teachers like you.” “You are an effective person.” I learned I had the right and power to accept the message, reject it, or consider it, and decide to alter it. I learned not everyone was so fortunate.

How would I have reacted if I had heard 3, 30, 300, or 3000 times to any of the following?: “No.” “No.” No.” “You’re not good enough/smart enough/right enough/white enough.” As a little kid I got a knot in my stomach knowing something was horrendously out of whack in that. I cringed when I heard, “He’s a dummy,” “She’s a slut,” or a racial slur.

In my 20’s, with friends who backed me up (again- fortunate me), I started to respond. “Wow, she always says such nice things about you.” “I’m wondering why you would say something like that?” “Whoa, what the heck do you mean by that?” “Sounds racist to me. Stop it.”

A Real Life Example

Picture this. A New Jersey Kidney survivor group, closing with a meditation. People are tired. It’s just before lunch. I say, ”As we get ready to close, please sit comfortably and with dignity.” There’s an audible intake of breath from the group. Some are exhausted. Some are in the first thirty days of a new kidney. Some are clinging to a thread of hope after waiting two years. People stir as they sit up, a tilt of chin. A lifting of the head and torso. Dignity. A shiver goes through me. One word helped turn that idea into an energizing physical action. One word, delivered with compassion.

What positive powerful words are you using? Towards yourself? Towards others?

I want to keep connecting with people. I am committed to be more and more aware of what opens the doors to conversations and what closes them.

Keeping that door open.


Tomorrow: A resource that helps. The Four Agreements.

Ethel Lee-Miller blogs regularly about people, the power of words, and the writing life. She’s retired from professional writing gigs after 30 years of teaching, coaching, editing, and gathering writers to publicly share their work. She is the author of Thinking of Miller Place, and Seedlings, Stories of Relationships. In retirement she’s writing to inspire, to connect with folks, and for the pure enjoyment of it, and sharing stories at Odyssey Storytelling, Tucson Tellers of Tales, and anywhere there’s a Zoom mic.